News | May 05, 2008

Bar-Coded Surgical Sponges Improve Patient Safety, Study Says

May 6, 2008 - A randomized controlled trial conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital— in affiliation with Harvard Medical School— finds bar-coded, computer-assisted surgical sponge counting systems reduce the chance of counting errors during patient surgery by a factor of 3 to 1.

The results of the study, conducted by patient safety researchers Atul Gawande, M.D., MPH, and Caprice Greenberg, M.D., were published recently in the Annals of Surgery. An article summarizing the study results entitled “Bar-Coding Surgical Sponges To Improve Safety: A Randomized Controlled Trial” can be found at

Previous studies have shown that counts are falsely reported as correct in the majority of cases of retained sponges and instruments, resulting in the surgical team incorrectly believing that all the sponges are accounted for. The Boston study was based on 300 general surgery operations and showed that using a bar-coded surgical sponge system during surgery detected over ten times more counting errors than traditional counting methods in cases where sponges were misplaced or counted incorrectly.

“Leaving surgical sponges inside patients happens more often than people think and far more often than it should,” said Dr. Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a co-author of the study. “Surgical teams have been seeking a solution to this problem for decades and this trial of a computer-assisted method of counting surgical sponges gives us reason to believe a viable, proven and cost-effective solution has at last been found.”

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